The Pittsburgh Pirates return to Pittsburgh to face the Cincinnati Reds for the second time this season.
Reds Record: 9-13 (4th in NL Central)
Last Series Result: Swept by the New York Mets
After beginning the season 5-1, the Reds have reverted to preseason expectations going 4-12 since. For the season the team is slashing .242/.292/.387 (16th/26th/17th in the MLB) and is still having injury issues with their pitching, with four starting pitchers currently on the Disabled List including Homer Bailey. The Reds’ very low OBP is explained to some degree by their Major League worst 53 walks. The schedule makers also did the Reds no favors to begin the season as all but six of their games in the month of April have come against 2015 playoff teams.
Not helping matters for the Reds is the slow start that Joey Votto has to the season. The former NL MVP is currently slashing .221/.311/.312. Like Andrew McCutchen, Votto is also suffering from a lower than average BABIP (.268), so one shouldn’t expect this to continue over the entire season. On the flip side, Brandon Phillips and Eugenio Suarez are the two biggest producers for the Reds. Phillips is currently slashing .308/.343/.462 and Suarez has a team-leading 5 Home Runs with a .500 slugging percentage.
Beyond that, performances have been weak for the Reds with regulars Billy Hamilton, Scott Schebler, and Devin Mesoraco all with Batting Averages below .200 and On Base Percentages below .260. While the Reds do have some dangerous hitters in their lineup, they have a lot of weak spots in their lineup that make it difficult for them to generate a large number of runs without the help of Home Runs.
Game 1 – April 29, 7:05 P.M. ET
Game 2 – April 30, 7:05 P.M. ET
Game 3 – May 1, 1:35 P.M. ET
After the game on Thursday was postponed, the Pirates decided to just push all the pitcher’s next scheduled start back a day. This makes sense in that it gives Gerrit Cole a start against the Cubs in the next series rather than having neither him nor Francisco Liriano facing the current NL Central leaders. The Pirates haven’t lost since the last time Juan Nicasio took the mound and they will hope to continue this. Nicasio has generally performed somewhere between his fantastic first start of the season and his disastrous second start. He did not face the Reds the last time the two teams played. Francisco Liriano will look to build on his great start on Sunday after getting roughed up in his previous couple of starts. Jeff Locke hopes to have another start like his most recent against the Rockies when he went six scoreless innings. Some consistency from Locke would be welcome in an uncertain Pirates rotation.
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Dan Straily was pressed into duty as a starter out of the bullpen due to the injuries the Reds have suffered to their pitching staff. In his two starts this season he has failed to go beyond 5 innings in each. In those two starts he has pitched 9.2 innings and has given up 4 earned runs, issued 5 walks, and struck out 9. After striking out 7 over 5 innings in his first start of the season against the Pirates, Alfredo Simon has been rocked twice by the Cubs. In his first start against them he couldn’t even get out of the first inning and in his most recent start, he gave up 8 runs and 2 Home Runs over 2.2 innings. He also appeared for an inning out of the bullpen against the Cardinals and it did not go much better as he gave up 2 Home Runs and faced 7 batters. Raisel Iglesias has been maybe the most effective Starting Pitcher for the Reds this season. Despite this, his only win of the season came in his start against the Pirates. Overall, he is striking out a lot of batters (9.21 K/9) and walking few (2.22 BB/9).
You likely remember that the Pirates and Reds met in the second series of the season earlier this month. The Pirates won the first game thanks to Starling Marte’s first career Grand Slam, but disappointingly lost the following two games due to an inability to get timely hits and drive base runners in. While the Pirates had won that first game by a 6-5 final score, they dropped the second game of the series 5-1, their first loss of the season. However, the most disappointing game had to come in the series finale when the Reds prevailed 2-1 after they scored the game-winning run in the bottom of the Ninth off a Brandon Phillips triple. Chris Stewart had opened the scoring in that game with his first Home Run as a Pirate in the Second inning, but Eugenio Suarez had tied it in the Sixth inning. The frustrating aspect of this game for the Pirates was them leaving 14 runners on base and going 1 for 14 with runners in scoring position for the day, with the one hit resulting in Josh Harrison getting thrown out at the plate. This result led to a surprising early season series defeat to a team that was presumed to be a bottom-feeder of the National League.
Reds Player to Watch: Zack Cozart
Shortstop Zack Cozart is also off to a blazing start .397/.388/.603 and a wRC+ of 152. Additionally, despite never being one to hit a ton of Home Runs, he already has 2 on the season. You may wonder why I didn’t mention him above with Phillips and Suarez. This would be because he has a BABIP of .411 and doesn’t even have enough at bats to qualify. He is the player to watch for this series because he is obviously currently on a hot streak that is not sustainable.
It will be interesting to see if his hot streak will propel the Reds to an extra win in this series that they may not have had otherwise or if this is the series where he starts to fall back to earth. It’s worth noting that Cozart has never been exactly known for his offensive prowess, slashing .249/.288/.382 for his career, and at 30 years old he can hardly be expected to have a breakout season in 2016. Still, from a baseball standpoint, it’s good to see Cozart off to such a great start after he missed most of last season with a knee injury.
Pirates Keys to Victory
Cutch Keeps Going
While it was nice to see the Pirates win while Andrew McCutchen wasn’t performing his best, this team needs him to be over his slump to be humming along at all cylinders if they want to catch the Cubs in the NL Central. While no opponent should be overlooked, the Reds simply aren’t very good and McCutchen hitting the ball well should help them take this series with relative ease.
The Pirates disappointing showing in their previous matchup with the Reds can be largely blamed on their lack of timely hitting. The Pirates got hits, they just couldn’t get them home. Frankly, the Reds got lucky and since then things have balanced out and the Pirates are regularly putting up high run totals. Expect that to continue and for the Pirates to handle the Reds this time around as long as they get just a few timely hits.
Pitching has undoubtedly been the weak point for the Pirates this season with the bullpen struggling and the starting pitching not going deep enough into games to give them a break. If the Pirates can get some quality starts from their starters, or hopefully even better with a 7+ inning start, it can give the beleaguered bullpen a break and give the Pirates their best chance of winning.
I find it a near-pointless endeavor to attempt to predict the outcome of not just one baseball game, but a series of three as well. However, I will do so because it’s fun and I’ve always mentally tried to do it at the beginning of every series anyways. I’m very confident that the Pirates will win this series. They had an unexpected day off with the postponement in Colorado on Thursday and they are once again back in Pittsburgh where they have enjoyed a sizable home field advantage in recent years. On top of that, I do not expect their bats to go silent again at inopportune times and the Reds have come back to earth after their 5-1 start. I won’t predict a sweep though due to the continued uncertainty of the pitching which still gives other teams the opportunity to tee off on the Buccos on seemingly any given night.
Prediction: Pirates 2-1